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Fujinami hoping to see hard work pay off in new season

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Shintaro Fujinami is no old dog, but the 22-year-old Hanshin Tigers pitcher may have some new tricks.

A “new” Fujinami has been among the recurring themes in reports about the Tigers this spring. Hoping to brush aside a down year in 2016, Fujinami reportedly took a few aspects of his game back to the drawing board in hopes of coming out the other side a new and improved man.

What this “new” Fujinami has to offer remains to be seen, but anxious Tigers fans might get a sneak peek during the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

First of all, Fujinami wasn’t exactly bad to begin with. He had his first losing season in 2016, going 7-11, but did so with a 3.25 ERA, a 3.07 fielding independent pitching (which measures the outcomes a pitcher controls) that was fifth-best in the Central League, and 176 strikeouts in 169 innings. Not bad overall, just not the elite level fans were expecting him to perform on.

Among his issues last season was a propensity to allow runs early in games, especially during the first inning. Since Hanshin was a far cry from an offensive juggernaut (which is being overly kind), placing 10th out of 12 NPB clubs with 506 runs scored, this didn’t do his win-loss record any favors.

His biggest sin was his control, which at times he seemed to struggle with. Fujinami got strikeouts, but he also too often put runners on base with hittable, misplaced balls or just by walking batters. His walks plus hit per innings pitched was 1.31 in 2016, second-worst among qualified CL pitchers — and more runners on base means more chances for something to go awry.

Still, Fujinami mostly kept the ball on the ground and while some of his wounds were self-inflicted, he also succumbed to plain-old bad luck on occasion.

Solving the second of the aforementioned issues (control) would take care of the first. Fujinami has reportedly gotten stronger (which also helps him overall) and made a few mechanical tweaks to his form. So perhaps he has ironed out some of the glitches that popped up last year and will enter the season with better control, which might yield better results.

He wouldn’t be so much a “new” Fujinami in that case, but just continuing the climb he began in 2015, when he nearly won the Sawamura Award over Kenta Maeda.

A Fujinami in full control of his powers could be a sight to behold. He has a fastball that in 2016 averaged 149.5 kph (per Data Stadium), second only to Shohei Otani’s 154.7, and a solid forkball to go with it. He likes to throw a cutter and has also worked to improve his two-seamer. With a better grip on his arsenal, Fujinami could be a real force.

The upcoming WBC would be great place for him to put his offseason gains to the test. Fujinami will be used in relief at the WBC — which will be interesting if his aforementioned early-outing struggles haven’t dissipated. If he’s really improved, he’ll be a major weapon out of the bullpen, and a strong performance would be the perfect springboard into the regular season.

Fujinami has a wealth of talent, so much so that some scouts rated him higher than Otani when both were coming out of high school in 2012. Otani has since pulled away, but he hasn’t left Fujinami entirely in the dust.

Fujinami will try to close the gap a little this year, when he and his new attitude take the mound for both Samurai Japan and the Tigers.